10  Apr

April–what some farmers call “mud season” in the North Country. During the 15 years I worked for Cornell Cooperative Extension I spent most of my time “out and around” making farm visits. This meant finding the farmer wherever he was at the time, often out in the field. Early on I decided that getting stuck in the mud would be a waste of time so I was very cautious as to where I drive the company car. The head of Cornell University’s fleet garage was a piece of work, and I sure didn’t want to bring a car back to the university with the undercarriage coated with mud. So I often would walk back to a field instead of driving down a muddy farm road.

I got stuck exactly twice in those 15 years, and in both cases with the farmer in the passenger seat telling me “Oh, you can drive down here, it’s OK.” Obviously, it was not. In one case the farmer told me to drive down what appeared to be a slightly muddy slope. I said “Are your sure?” He said “No problem.”. I started down the slope, and about halfway down he said “Maybe that’s far enough.” “I stopped back up there a ways–we’re sliding.” And we did, all the way to the bottom of the slope. He wasn’t upset, obviously had been stuck many times before, and hiked back to the farm, returning with a big John Deere tractor to haul me back up the hill.

I also got stuck twice in the 30 years I worked at Miner Institute, in both cases nobody’s fault but my own. The ribbing I took from the “Crops Crew” in hauling my car out of the mud was enough punishment that both times were early on in my career there.

One warm, sunny spring day a farmer on his way to town drove past a field and saw a tractor in a field near the road with a man lying under the tractor. He wasn’t moving, and the farmer feared the worst. He got out of his pickup and ran into the partly plowed field, yelling “Are you OK?” The man quickly sat up, forgetting that he was lying under the tractor, whacked his head on the undercarriage, flattening him again. He rolled out from under the tractor, rubbing his head with a sheepish smile. “Got sleepy and thought I’d take a nap in the shade.” You’d have to know the sleepy fellow to truly appreciate this story…

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: April 10, 2017, 12:35 pm | No Comments »

02  Mar
Amazing stuff

I just watched a presentation by Cornell University entomologist Elson Shields which included the progress being made in controlling field crop insect pests with “friendly” nematodes. When most farmers think if nematodes it’s the species that are plant pests. but these nematodes only attack beetle larvae. Cornell has been working for years now on developing species of nematodes that control alfalfa snout beetle, a devastating alfalfa pest for which there’s no chemical control. That project is going well, but now they’re looking at the possibility that the same friendly nematodes may also kill corn rootworm larvae. So far the results are encouraging–but preliminary. This is potentially a very big deal, for two reasons:

1. While alfalfa snout beetles are only a known problem in a handful of upstate NY counties, corn rootworms are very widespread.
2. The problem with rootworms genetically resistant to the Bt traits found in corn hybrids continues to get worse, with no sign that plant breeders will overcome the resistance problem.

It’s still early and Dr. Shields is being very cautious about claiming a breakthrough, but this is a topic well worth following as research continues.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: March 2, 2017, 5:09 pm | No Comments »

03  Feb
Twain was wrong

One of Mark Twain’s more famous sayings:”What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so”. However amusing I think this isn’t true, at least not entirely, as I often encounter questions begging for answers–and not knowing these answers can lead to problems. I’ve often thought: “Gee, I wish I was still working at Miner Institute and had a graduate student available to explore this area.” Graduate students can be terrific resources to thoroughly examine issues and questions that are bugging their professor or supervisor.

In agriculture in general (and forage production in particular) there are a lot of questions just begging for answers: How well will the various cool grass species persist when harvested along with reduced-lignin alfalfa when the alfalfa is in the bud stage? Will reduced-lignin alfalfa stand up better during adverse conditions (wind, wet) when grown with a forage grass vs. in monoculture? If so, are there some grasses that will work better with the new alfalfa genetics? How much differently will BMR corn perform vs. conventional corn when grown in narrow rows? How reliable are university corn hybrid trials involving only two rows of each hybrid? Do differences in plant height affect the performance of the various hybrids in these trials? How has climate change affected crop production practices–we know some of the impacts but not others–and there’s no question that the length of the growing season has increased. Are there crops we should be considering now that we didn’t twenty years ago? Lots of questions, not nearly enough answers.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: February 3, 2017, 3:26 pm | No Comments »

I’ve been a lucky guy during my long career as a crop consultant, visiting many countries with various political systems including communism, socialism and varying degrees of capitalism. About a dozen nations in all so far, not counting a bunch of Caribbean Islands The Bride and I have visited on our several cruises. Some trips have been more enjoyable than others, but all have left me realizing once again that the U.S. agricultural system is the best in the world. While government support of agriculture has stagnated–perhaps even declined–over the years the formal linkage between USDA and Land Grant College research, State, regional and county-based Extension education systems and the end users (farmers and agribusiness professionals) is unmatched.

The internet brings the world closer, but to really experience it first-hand you need to “get out and around”, even if that only means the other side of this nation. Late each winter Miner Institute made trip to the Western U.S. with a group of college students as a part of their curriculum. We include an eclectic group of Institute staff, farmers and agribusiness professionals who pay their own way. One time we were headed to California and one of the dairy farmers by his own admission had “no life” outside his farm. He was a top-notch manager–still is for that matter–but his life revolved around his cows. He made the trip with a bit of trepidation, thinking that there was no way a dairy in the Northeast could compete economically with the huge dairies of the Southwest. What he found–to his surprise and delight–is that while the western dairies were impressive there were (are) advantages that well-managed dairies in the Northeastern U.S. have. He told me that it was an eye-opening experience, one he treasured. That was his first “big trip” but his appetite was whetted and it wasn’t his last.

The 50th anniversary of World Ag Expo–one of the stops when the Miner Institute contingent travels to California–will be held this year on February 14-16 in Tulare, California. For more information:

There are two huge dairy buildings and 1500 exhibits on 60 acres of exhibit area showing the diversity of agriculture for which California is famous. Easy access from one of the big West Coast airports and right next to a major north-south highway. It’s certainly worth a visit, but plan for more than one day at the show–it’s that big. Hey–if not now, when?

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: January 3, 2017, 5:50 pm | No Comments »

01  Dec

I don’t know whether I feel ornery enough to call this a rant, but I’m increasingly disappointed at the selection of hybrids seed companies enter in state university corn silage hybrid trials. I’m speaking primarily of the several national seed companies which for some reason have decided to enter their some state trials but not others. Maybe it’s the cost of entering the trials, perhaps a philosophical decision made “at the top”, or perhaps something else. And maybe there’s a perfectly good reason for it, but the result is that it’s more difficult than ever to compare, for instance, Pioneer’s top-rated hybrids with those of Dekalb as well as the good regional seed companies entering many of these trials. Can the regional companies compete for silage yield and quality? Sure would be good to know! But increasingly some of these trials are dominated by the regional seed companies. For instance, the 2016 Cornell University silage trials include 29 hybrids each in two locations, but only two Mycogen hybrids and none from Pioneer or Dekalb.

It’s true that there’s not a lot of difference in fiber digestibility among conventional corn hybrids but there sure are differences in maturity and dry matter yield. There’s also a fair amount of difference in starch content and therefore in whole plant digestibility. But as it is now much is left to guesswork and the (often fantastic) claims by seed companies. One more reason to work closely with your seed dealer(s), but these folks are better at evaluating their own company’s hybrids than making comparisons between companies. Which should not surprise you in the least.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: December 1, 2016, 11:47 am | No Comments »

02  Nov

We move from Northern NY to Virginia each November,returning in late March. We do so for several reasons: To be closer to family, to escape the bitter cold, and because during the winter there’s almost nobody left around here, most all having departed for permanent or winter homes. Lots of summer residents around here maintain permanent homes in the Buffalo/Rochester/Syracuse metro areas, while others reside in Florida (or other relatively warm climates) during the winter. Winter population of Oak Point: 3. (Two during the month one old guy spends somewhere south of here.)

It’s very quiet around here during spring and fall, with virtually no traffic since the road we live on is a one-way loop. Especially when there’s little or no wind we can hear the train across the river in Ontario, and often the deep thrum of the huge diesel engines on ships in the St. Lawrence Seaway (which stays open late into the fall), but that’s about it. We often know when our mail arrives because it may be the only car driving past all morning!

Contrast this to where we live in Virginia, just south of the big city of Richmond. There’s a 4-lane highway about a mile from us and there’s constant traffic noise from that. And an actively used railroad isn’t much further away; a train has to sound its whistle at every crossing, and often during the night we can hear a whole bunch of warning whistles, first faint, then growing louder and then faint again. We’re seldom with anything other than the sounds of nature up north, seldom without traffic sounds down south.

Another big difference: Shopping. Around here it’s a 20-minute drive to anything more than a mom-and-pop store, and even then the choices are limited. We’re one of the few area in the U.S. that’s not within 15 minutes of a WalMart. But in Virginia we’re 5 minutes from all sorts of shopping alternatives (and less than 10 minutes from not one but two Walmarts!).

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: November 2, 2016, 12:30 pm | No Comments »

02  Oct
A dry summer

It was a very dry summer in much of the Northeast, with moderate to severe drought in parts of NY. But the region is nothing if not variable in weather conditions; I talked with a Vermont farmer who’d harvested four excellent cuts of alfalfa by the end of August and said he was looking at a “huge” corn crop. He isn’t going to take a fall alfalfa harvest because he already has more than enough forage. But combine dry weather and impending corn harvest for silage and there’s always talk of nitrate poisoning. But talk is about all we usually wind up with since rarely are there actual cases of nitrate poisoning of livestock. We can’t ignore the potential for problems because nitrate toxicity is a serious matter, but fortunately it’s also a rare one—at least in the Northeastern U.S. That’s for three reasons: First, the fermentation process reduces nitrate concentrations by about 50%, one more reason for farmers to make sure that their corn is completely fermented before attempting to feed it. Second, with the cost of fertilizer, most farmers can’t afford to apply enough fertilizer N to result in very high nitrate levels. Heavily manured may be the exception, but in much of this region manure is applied to corn fields in the fall so by the time the following summer rolls around much of the readily-available N is long gone. And third, nitrates concentrate in the bottom of the stalk. Unlike California and other parts of the Left Coast where corn is often chopped at a 2” stubble height, farmers in the Northeast (where stones are a fact, not a rumor) most corn isn’t chopped at anything less than about 6”. In fact, most farmers who think they chop at 6” haven’t actually measured it with a ruler. I’ve found that 8” stubble height is a lot more common than 6”.

This is similar to my experience with prussic acid poisoning, which is a reported threat when summer annuals such as sudan-sorghum are harvested either too early or too soon after a killing frost. Warnings about the potential for prussic acid poisoning almost always accompany any recommendations or discussions about summer annual crops, but in fifty years of working with farmers in the Northeast I can’t remember one time when cattle were actually poisoned by prussic acid. And it’s not because farmers always closely follow recommendations either!

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: October 2, 2016, 2:20 pm | No Comments »

Last month’s post was written when we were in the midst of the worst dry spell (perhaps drought) in many years, with some farmers saying that they had gone about two months without rain. August still wound up with about an inch less rain than the long-term average but thanks to several T-storms and torrential (if brief) downpours the scenery has changed for the better. Lawns that were parched brown and crunched underfoot–my wife said she could see puffs of dust coming up wherever I set down my foot–are now green and lawnmowers, unheard for over a month, are now running again. In some cases the grass has made such a comeback that you’d never know it was brown just a few weeks ago.

Such is not the case with some trees, mostly small ones growing where there’s usually ample moisture–and therefore shallow root systems–but the ash trees around here really took a beating, in many cases shedding all their leaves. This is the puzzle and a very suspicious development, especially with the Emerald ash borer, a devastating insect that kills ash trees, not far away. The infestation map for NY state indicates that the borer isn’t any closer than the Syracuse/Utica regions, but it was confirmed several years ago in the Ontario county right across the river from here. Since borer beetles can fly I’m not sure what would prevent them from making the one-mile trip across the St. Lawrence River. If it isn’t due to the Emerald ash borer, I’d like to know why a large ash tree at a friend’s place near here lost all it’s leaves in August while other deciduous species including maple and oak trees appear entirely normal. Just because the borer hasn’t been confirmed in Northern NY doesn’t mean it’s not here… The state did put up pheromone traps here at Oak Point looking for the borer but that was several years ago.

Almost 100 years ago we lost almost all the chestnut trees in the Northeast due to the Chestnut blight, then it was the elm trees due to Dutch elm disease. I’m old enough to remember a few of the last chestnut trees in Southern Connecticut, remember collecting chestnuts from under one, and I watched the row of elm trees lining both sides of the road leading to Miner Institute die one by one until none was left. Now I fear that our ash trees aren’t long from the same fate.


Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: September 6, 2016, 11:56 am | No Comments »

Many years ago at an agribusiness meeting I listened to a fellow from the Northeast Regional Climate Center discuss weather forecasting. He said that up to 48 hours their forecasting accuracy had improved a lot, but much beyond that it was just about as accurate as a coin toss!

Right now I’d take 50% accuracy, even for 24-48 hour weather forecasting. This area is in a drought, with about 2″ of rain in the past two months, so we follow weather forecasts more closely than normal. Time and time again we’ve had a 60% chance of rain in the forecast, and time and time again we wind up on the “bad” 40% side of the percentages. And with today’s reliance on computers, you’d think there would be some uniformity or agreement between the several forecasting services. But nooo: Yesterday morning Intellicast predicted an 80% chance of mid-day rain with over half an inch expected. NOAA forecast a 20-40 chance of rain with 1/4″ or less total. Weather.com, on the other hand, predicted only a 5% chance. We got a sprinkle about 9 AM, not enough to even wet the pavement, and my mid-day it was sunny, hot and almost cloudless. For the last month or so, for any of these services a coin toss percentage would be a big improvement.

Crop conditions vary widely across the North Country, not unexpected since a significant portion of our summer precipitation comes as hit-or-miss thunderstorms. This summer they’ve hit the eastern portion of Northern NY and missed the western portion. Crops at Miner Institute (Chazy) are excellent, while crops around here are burning up though there’s still some decent-looking early-planted corn. What’s really taken a hammering are grass fields, many of which have gone dormant since the first crop was harvested, and as warm as the soil is even a good rain won’t bring them back this summer. This is a very poor summer for shallow-rooted crops.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: August 2, 2016, 11:36 am | No Comments »

I freely admit that I’m against the mandatory labeling of foodstuffs. GMO foods have been studied extensively with no indication whatsoever that they pose any threat to human health. In fact you can make the case that some GMO foods are safer because by preventing insect damage by corn borers and corn rootworms the corn plant remains healthier. Healthy plants are less susceptible to plant fungi, and some of the toxins produced by these fungi are highly carcinogenic. Although it won’t be enforced for some months, Vermont’s GMO labeling law began on July 1st. While there’s reasonable hope that the U.S. House of Representatives will approve a reasonable national GMO labeling bill, then hash things out with the Senate and finally have the President sign it, in the meantime we’re seeing the initial reaction of food manufacturers to the Vermont labeling law. At last count food manufacturers have pulled over 3000 food products from Vermont shelves, apparently concluding that it’s not worth re-labeling their products for the relatively small market that Vermont represents. So at least temporarily, these food manufacturers are voting with their feet and are exiting Vermont.

Posted by Ev, filed under Uncategorized. Date: July 9, 2016, 1:52 pm | No Comments »

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